“Don’t forget to take somethin’ from the bonus box!” I turned around, holding my bag of organic cherry tomatoes, the sweet yellow burst of flavor still warm on my tongue from the one I couldn’t resist pinching outside. “The what?” I said back to the cashier. She pointed towards the door and a bin of items like radishes, peppers, potatoes, cucumbers and oblong vegetables I didn’t recognize. I picked up a Thai basil plant, smelling its leaves and tiny purple flowers and cradled it out of the store as if I’d just adopted a child, one I’d water and care for (and, oh yes, eat).
A short while after moving to the North Fork, I discovered this kind of just-because surprise isn’t unique to Sang Lee Farms. For instance, if you arrive at Harbes too early for fresh cider donuts because the oil isn’t hot yet, at check out, you may find a bag of six waiting for you. They’ll be free because they were made yesterday, but they’ll be tasty all the same.
After being greeted by a pretty calf at the Ty Llwyd Farm (pronounced tee clewed, meaning brown house in Welsh), I met owner Liz Wines. I handed her some bills and a bunch of coins, mumbling apologies for only having the $4.50 needed for a dozen small eggs; she smiled and waved “just a moment” and disappeared into the farmhouse. When she resurfaced, carrying a blue carton, I said I’d return the next morning with more cash for a bottle of raw milk. Back at our part-time cottage in Mattituck, I opened the carton and found there were a dozen small, medium and large eggs.
By the time the Ty Llwyd eggs had run out on a cool July morning, my husband and I decided to bike to breakfast. We pedaled to 8 Hands Farm where we knew we’d find the North Fork Food Truck. We devoured bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches as sheep grazed nearby and chickens clucked about. Our pockets could not fit the bounty we wanted to buy, so we plucked a few tomato samples then learned owner Carol Festa often gives out bites of baked goods and will thank repeat customers with bonus items like flowers or produce.
At Country View Farmstand, a pyramid of free plums sits on display near the register. As owner Donna Polak rings up my peaches and corn, she tells me about all the recent samples, like melon and pie and mozzarella, and how the prior weekend there was Vidalia peach salsa and black bean corn salsa. I try to speak, but the flavorful punch of plum has taken over. I can only cover my mouth as the juice runs down my chin and gesture to a container of plums that must be mine.
After a long workday in the city and an uninspiring trip to the crowded grocery store, I typically cook whatever is easiest. I buy what’s local in the supermarket, but of course it’s not the same as going to the source, meeting the farmer, talking about the latest crop and tasting the exquisite samples of the season.
Every weekend I return to the country, hungry for fresh produce, peaceful pastures and the conversations with people behind the stands whose kindness and raw passion for growing food make this side of Long Island such a magical place to call home.
The truth is it doesn’t matter which dirt road you take in search of organic goodness; all the local farms I’ve visited on the North Fork offer a story and an edible surprise that together turn out to be the secret ingredients for a delicious and memorable meal.